The Current·Q&A

Guilty verdicts in Arbery, Floyd cases are 'asterisks' in U.S. racial justice history: journalist

The Matter of Black Lives: Writing from The New Yorker, co-edited by staff writer Jelani Cobb, explores the magazine's coverage of race relations and racial justice in the United States.

'We can’t presume that they make a bigger point about American jurisprudence': Jelani Cobb

People gather in front of a mural of Ahmaud Arbery painted on the side of The Brunswick African American Cultural Center in Brunswick, Ga. (Octavio Jones/The Associated Press)

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Journalist Jelani Cobb says the guilty verdicts in the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial shouldn't be taken as definitive evidence of progress being made to address racial crimes in the United States.

"This case and the George Floyd case are really like asterisks," the New Yorker staff writer told The Current's Matt Galloway. "We can't presume that they make a bigger point about American jurisprudence."

Three white men were convicted of murder last week in the killing of Arbery, a Black man who was running through a neighbourhood in a Georgia city in February 2020. The three men chased him, trapped him on a quiet street and shot him.

"The point is not whether justice was achieved in this case, it's the overwhelming uncommon circumstances under which it occurred and the scale of the effort that was required to bring it," Cobb wrote in the New Yorker on the day the verdict was read.

In September, Cobb co-edited a collection of essays titled The Matter of Black Lives: Writing from The New Yorker. He previously wrote a standalone essay with a similar title in 2016. The anthology attempts to make sense of the history of race relations in the U.S. through the lens of New Yorker essays written by various Black academics. This includes novelist James Baldwin, whose essay "Letter from a Region in My Mind" covers a conversation he had with religious leader Elijah Muhammad.

WATCH: Three white men found guilty of Ahmaud Arbery's murder

3 white men found guilty of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder

2 months ago
Duration 2:13
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. Three white men were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, while he was jogging in their Georgia community in February 2020. Arbery’s family and supporters are hailing the verdict as a victory for racial justice. 2:13

Cobb spoke to Galloway about this anthology and the history of race relations in the United States. Here's a part of their conversation.

[Some] people say that guilty verdicts mean that there has been perhaps some progress when it comes to racial justice in the United States. Do you see it as that?

In the preponderance of these cases, they will turn up more like Kyle Rittenhouse than they did in these circumstances, where video was key to it. Also, the fact that there was an extraordinary amount of public pressure. 

If in fact you have to have more than a year of protests and people in the street, and you have to have video evidence of what happened, and you have to have international outrage in order to ensure that charges are brought and some semblance of justice is arrived at, that in itself is an indicator that your system is badly flawed and failing.

Let me ask you about video and the psychological weight of video. Tell me about the Trayvon [Martin] generation…. What do you think that generation has gone through?

Collectively, there are a ton of things we could talk about just in the context of criminal justice. You know, there's been Trayvon Martin, there's been Renisha McBride, there's been Ferguson, there's been Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner — a whole litany of names.

People who were identified as family and friends of Regis Korchinski-Paquet (no names provided) lead protesters as they march in Toronto to highlight the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

In the past decade since cell phone video has become much more common, we've seen these incidents take place in a way they were always taking place, but the public did not have direct awareness of it. 

So I think this generation has really witnessed a society having to grapple — or as the term was used last year, reckon — with what the implications of its criminal justice policies are, how they're connected to the tortured history of race in this country, and what the implications are for people who are going to be the inheritors of this society.

You went back to Baldwin's essay after the murder of George Floyd. When you reread that in that moment, what struck you?

I think the obvious point is the familiarity. The dynamics that Baldwin was talking about — the ways in which people are collated into various tiers of society, and the mechanisms that are responsible for that — were really familiar. A lot of people would read that essay in the United States right now and see parallels between what Baldwin was writing about in 1962, and what we're seeing in American society in 2021. 

The other thing ... is that he wrote it at the outset of what would have been considered a reckoning at that point. The anger that was typified by Malcolm X and the rise of the Nation of Islam, which was inscrutable to lots of white people, it seemed to have come out of nowhere with no context for lots of white people. 

[This essay] is his act of witness, of testifying and saying, this is the frame by which I can understand Elijah Muhammad, this is the person who was sitting down at the table across from Elijah Muhammad, and this is the set of life experiences that have made this movement legible to me in particular ways.

That, I think, is really the point of it. When we're looking at the anger in the streets, [or] at the sustained protests that we saw in the aftermath of George Floyd's death, that kind of fiery reckoning that was on everyone's mind, that essay really summarises and typifies what was happening. 

WATCH: James Baldwin on being Black in the United States

Author James Baldwin on being black in America

2 years ago
Duration 27:14
In 1960, the novelist talks with Nathan Cohen of the CBC about the place of black people in American society. 27:14

[Baldwin] wrote that he did not believe there would ever be a Black American president. What do you think he would have made of the election of Barack Obama?

I had this conversation ... with Derrick Bell, the late legal scholar and the mind behind what came to be known as critical race theory. And he felt that Baldwin would be very critical of Barack Obama.

[It's] a feeling that [Obama] had been too evenhanded on matters of race and that he'd been too tentative in his actions, attempting to kind of govern for the broader public without making the moral claim that there was a significant part of that public that had never really been included, and that you had to do things differently because of that. And so I think Baldwin might have said that. 

In 2016, you wrote The Matter of Black Lives, and you wondered in that piece whether that year was the high point of the movement. What do you think now?

No, I don't think it was. But one of the reasons that I thought Black Lives Matter was particularly notable was the fact that they were operating within the context of a Black presidency. The irony was that you could have this unprecedented level of representation in politics and still need to be in the street. 

That frustration — [at] Obama's inability to bring immediate change and sweeping change to the lives of people in these communities — was a kind of recruiting effort for Black Lives Matter.

I thought that might change in the context of a white presidency. What I had not anticipated, as many people, was the kind of incendiary, racist, proto-fascist, misogynistic presidency that would follow Barack Obama's. 

I think that that was a dynamic that really went into maintaining the kinds of fervour and energy and excitement and power that Black Lives Matter initially harnessed.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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